Uganda’s tea sub-sector is a sleeping giant that if awakened would greatly improve the country’s export earnings. Many factors including poor co-ordination of the various policies are seen as limiting sub-sector’s growth, writes Nelson Mandela Muhoozi
Despite its big contribution to Uganda’s gross domestic product, the tea sub-sector’s development remains constrained by many challenges along the entire value chain owing to a lack of regulations. For the last five years, tea has contributed about 3.6% of Uganda’s export earnings.
Nevertheless, tea farmers say little attention is put towards its regulation, affecting the sub-sector’s performance, both in terms of quality and production capacity.
Apart from giving out free seedlings, nothing much has been achieved through government interventions to improve the tea sub-sector, sector players say.
This has affected the crop’s quality, production and price in Uganda compared to its East African counterparts such as Kenya and Rwanda.
lex Lwakuba, the commissioner for crop production at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, said: “Tea plays a major role in the economy. It is currently Uganda’s third largest agricultural export foreign exchange earner, bringing in over $100m (about sh280b).”
“Uganda has over 200,000 hectares of land where tea can be grown. However, only 35,000 ha (17.5%) is currently under tea production, leaving the other 82.5% unexploited,” he said.
“If the sector continues to grow, tea is likely to become the number one agricultural export earner for this country. But, this cannot happen without a tea policy to guide and regulate the sector,” he said.
Lwakuba said although there is a need to assess under-utilised policies and regulations such as the agriculture ministry’s agriculture extension and the fertiliser policies among other regulatory frameworks, the one for tea is relevant to the sector in order to minimise the regulatory vacuum, which is a big challenge at the moment.
“Agro-industrialisation stakeholders feel there is a need to increase the national tea processing capacity. This is because tea growing is recommended to drive commercial agriculture, which has created the necessity to cover the gaps in quality, standardisation and prices,” Lwakuba said.
He added: “Among the East African countries that sell their tea at the Mombasa auction, players complain of the low prices that Uganda’s product fetches compared to the neighbours’, which is attributed to low quality.”
Onesmus Matsiko of the Uganda Tea Association said Uganda’s tea sub-sector developed without regulation and was dominated by local smallholder farmers.
However, he argued that the latest combination of a liberalised economy together with acreage domination by outgrowers demands regulation for growth.
Matsiko added that the draft tea policy is focused on strengthening the legal and institutional framework for the governance of the sector, enhancing research, data and service extension to support the value-chain and promote investment that elevates production and productivity at farm level through the adoption of modern tea farming practices.
“The draft tea policy is also concentrated on promoting the adoption of modern technologies for post-harvest handling; processing and packaging; supporting adherence to and adoption of appropriate tea standards, certification and accreditation; ensuring environmental sustainability and resource-use efficiency across the tea value chain and also promoting the marketing and consumption of Uganda tea domestically, regionally and globally,” he added.
Alex Amanya, a project manager in charge of tea, East and Central Africa at Solidaridad, a non-government organisation, said: “Our East African counterparts have worked on issues of standardisation, their producers have certification and they highly regard traceability, which sets them apart and offers them better prices.”
“But as anyone can see, our potential is underutilised considering the value that the country gets from tea,” he said.
“Rwanda only produces close to 35 million kilogrammes of tea, but earns over $96m (about sh364b) and yet Uganda, which produces over 75 million kilogrammes of tea, earns just about $80m (about sh304b),” Amanya added.
Ephraim Biraaro Gashanga, a tea farmer and Buhweju West MP, said Uganda’s tea has got the potential to become one of the world’s best tea in terms of taste.
He said if the Government can streamline issues on regulation, governance and promotion, “We can overtake Kenya, not only from the production perspective, but also the value gained from exports.”
“You cannot neglect a sector that employs close to 80,000 households and supports 150,000 skilled and unskilled workers,” he added.
Lwakuba said for some tea farmers, factories determine prices that are unfair to farmers.
This, he said, makes farmers to pay less attention to the tea they produce, which compromises quality and leads to low prices on the world market.
He said, a tea policy would enhance the production of new tea varieties and clones that best fit Uganda’s conditions.
“We have a full research institute on tea that is being under-utilised due to inadequate funding, but if we can revive research and get tea varieties that compete favourably in the international market, our tea sector will fly high,” he added.
According to the Economic Policy Research Centre, a research organisation, the poor performance of the tea sector is because of poor co-ordination of the various policies that have resulted in low production and exports.
Why the need for a tea policy
Alex Lwakuba, the commissioner for crop production at the agriculture ministry, said where there are no standards, farmers become irresponsible, especially in seasons of high demand, which reduces the quality of the tea on the market.
He said the efforts to develop a tea policy started in 2005 when a draft policy produced by the ministry was presented to the Cabinet and later in 2017, a second effort by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Co-operatives to produce regulations for tea export policy.
However, he said both drafts were partial.
“One is only centred on agriculture, the other on trade. But in 2018, the agriculture ministry in collaboration with other players and the private sector, started formulating a comprehensive tea policy that would bring all areas together,” he said.
He added: “Frank Tumwebaze, the agriculture minister, advised that all the drafts from both ministries be polished, modified, revised and reconciled, after which a stakeholders’ meeting would be convened before a comprehensive tea policy presented to the Cabinet for review.”
Fred Bwino Kyakulaga, the state minister for agriculture, said the comprehensive draft was ready and covers the entire tea value chain right from the garden to the buyer.
Kyakulaga added that the draft was submitted to the cabinet secretariat although they were challenged to decide whether there should be separate policies for the value chains of different crops such as coffee, maize and cassava, or create one policy for all so that there is subsidiary legislation.
Gregory Mugabe, the chairperson of the Uganda Tea Association, said with the regulation in place, it would be easier for Ugandan farmers to benefit from sweat, with fair trade labels as they stand a chance to earn more than those without such labels.